Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer horrors left to my own imagination. Perhaps that’s why I find old-time radio (OTR, to its fans) so efficiently unsettling. In the right context, a few creaks, groans, and a diabolical laugh can be enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck.
But why is a blogger obsessed with classic movies featuring radio? Well, the golden ages of both Hollywood and American radio drama intertwined considerably. Alfred Hitchcock himself launched Suspense in 1942 with a tense radio adaptation of The Lodger, the same story he’d filmed in 1927.
One of the most prestigious and longest-running classic radio programs, Suspense specialized in—you guessed it—thrillers and potboilers, presenting a guest star each week. The show’s tour-de-force leading roles gave top Hollywood acting talent, including such major stars as Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, and Myrna Loy, a chance to prove how effectively they could work on the audience’s nerves with their voices alone.
Most Suspense radio plays fall into the vein of crime melodrama. However, when the show went in for horror, whether supernatural or psychological, it plunged into bloody and unnatural deeds with relish.
You can listen to all of these world-class programs for free. I’ve embedded audio for the episodes here.
So, what are you waiting for? Cozy up with a cup of cocoa and turn the lights down low. Fair warning, though: these episodes are well calculated to keep you in… suspense!
1. “The House in Cypress Canyon” (aired 12/5/1946)
Ask any OTR junkie about the creepiest episodes ever to travel the airwaves, and this chiller is bound to come up. An industrial chemist (Robert Taylor) and his wife consider themselves lucky when they buy a quaint new house in Cypress Canyon. Little do they know an insidious force behind the closet door threatens to destroy them.
With a terrifying, ambiguous plotline that the listener could interpret in any number of ways, “Cypress Canyon” will haunt you far beyond its half-hour runtime. Need a starting point for getting into OTR? Look no further!
2. “Ghost Hunt” (aired 6/23/1949)
A cocky radio host spends the night in a notorious haunted house and takes his microphone with him. He never makes it out, but the recording of his last hours hints at what drove him to a sudden death.
Not only does this creative episode deliver major goosebumps, but it also foreshadows the “found footage” horror subgenre. Plus, if you dislike guest star Ralph Edwards as much as I do for his patronizing treatment of Buster Keaton and Frances Farmer on This Is Your Life, you’ll thoroughly enjoy listening to him descend into madness!
3. “Three Skeleton Key” (aired 11/11/56)
Not for the squeamish, this episode. On an isolated French island colony, a trio of bickering lighthouse keepers find themselves under siege. A horde of rats arrives on a derelict ship after months at sea—and they’re hungry.
As producer William M. Robson warned listeners, “It is unconditionally guaranteed to chill your blood… unless you love rats.” In my opinion, he wasn’t exaggerating. Guest star Vincent Price could make oatmeal advertisements sound stomach-churningly gruesome, but here he’s working with serious gross-out material at his ghoulish best. Plus, the high-pitched, gibbering squeaks of those ravenous rodents will make your skin crawl.
4. “Narrative About Clarence” (aired 3/16/1944)
One of the creepiest screen villains of the 1940s, Laird Cregar lends his soft, insinuating baritone to this tale of revenge and mesmerism. After studying the secret mystic practices of India, n’er-do-well Clarence returns home to stay with his half-sister, Lillian, and her skeptical husband.
Before you can say “hocus pocus,” the self-proclaimed mental scientist is using his powers to control Lillian’s young daughter. Can Clarence be stopped before he settles a long-festering family grudge in the ugliest way possible?
5. “August Heat” (aired 5/31/1945)
On a stiflingly hot late summer day, an artist (Ronald Colman) draws a picture of a man he’s never seen—a man he happens to meet that very afternoon. But what does it mean when that man turns out to be a funerary mason who’s made a tombstone for the artist purely by chance?
The text of W. F. Havey’s short story about coincidence and premonitions of death hardly seems meaty or dramatic enough for even a half-hour program. Nevertheless, clever writing, snippets of otherworldly music, and some subtly foreboding sounds at the end make it all work, offering a brilliant example of radio’s singular spell.
6. “The Whole Town Sleeping” (aired 6/14/1955)
There’s nothing supernatural or occult about this gripping episode—just a flesh-and-blood serial killer, stalking women who pass through a ravine on the edge of a little midwestern town. The ultimate radio drama heroine, Agnes Moorehead rips into the material, penned by Ray Bradbury, with her usual tightly-wound élan.
Since much of the story is told in real-time—step-by-step as the protagonist walks home in the dark—the audience powerfully identifies with her fear. This is one of those horrors that frighten us so deeply because they’re not as removed from real life as we’d like to believe.
7. “Donovan’s Brain” (5/18 and 5/25/1944)
A scientist recovers the brain of a recently deceased tycoon and decides to use it for his experiments. Soon the brain’s power is reaching out to control the will of the man studying it.
This adaptation of Curt Siodmak’s novel hit the airwaves almost a decade before the story served as the basis for the cult sci-fi film starring Lew Ayres. And the radio play is scarier. Way scarier. Let’s just say the ending isn’t quite as cheery as the film’s.
Orson Welles delivers possibly the finest radio performance of his career, voicing both the calculating, pedantic scientist and the gruff, domineering Donovan. Running a full hour, this two-part episode lets the creepiness linger and build slowly, as the beeping, bubbling sounds of the lab gizmos that keep the brain alive grow utterly oppressive.
8. “Fugue in C-Minor” (aired 6/1/1944)
For a late 19th century lady in search of a husband, Mr. Evans seemed like the perfect catch: a sophisticated, rich widower. Such a shame about his first wife, who died in a carriage accident.
Why, then, do his little children insist that their mother is walled up in vast mechanisms of their father’s pipe organ?
Ida Lupino and Vincent Price strike just the right note of buttoned-up Victorian paranoia in this original play by Lucille Fletcher, who contributed several of Suspense’s most famous episodes. And sepulchral organ music adds a sense of doom and dignity to this bloodcurdling Gothic homage.
This is a recording of a rehearsal; the actual broadcast has been lost, I believe.
9. “Flesh Peddler” (aired 8/4/1957)
Who doesn’t love a creepy ventriloquist story? A dogged talent agent (DeForest Kelley)—or a “flesh peddler” in carnie parlance—sees Arthur Wilson and his dummy Oliver in a cheap carnival and senses something compelling about their chemistry. Trying to sign the act, the flesh peddler gets a little more than he bargained for…
Despite an implausible ending, the noirish rhythm of the dialogue and the cast of midway “freaks” endow this episode with a sordid, Tod Browning-esque ambiance that’s difficult to wash off afterwards.
10. “The Yellow Wallpaper” (aired 7/29/1948)
Enclosed or limited settings showcased the strengths of radio as a medium, minimizing the complex imagery that cinema often does better in favor of searing character studies. And few tales are more claustrophobic than Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s first-person account of a woman imprisoned in her own home.
Confined by her husband for an unspecified health condition, a doctor’s wife begins to obsess over the ripped yellow wallpaper in her bedroom. At first, she hates its garish pattern, until she thinks she notices a woman trapped behind it… The ever-superb Agnes Moorehead manages to cultivate our sympathy for the narrator’s plight while simultaneously creeping us out with her bizarre, elaborate fantasies.
11. “Deep, Deep Is My Love” (aired 4/26/1959)
Don (Lloyd Bridges) loves to skin dive alone, explaining to his wife that he needs some time to himself beneath the waves. He’s lying; he only wants to join the golden woman who beckons to him from an underwater grotto.
The trouble is, Don isn’t sure that the strange woman really exists. Perhaps narcosis—nitrogen intoxication, a side effect of diving—is playing a deadly trick on him.
Vivid descriptions of marine life and seascapes imbue this episode with a lyrical, almost hallucinatory quality. On the other hand, the wheezing respiration of Don’s mask, his oxygen diminishing with each breath, maintains the delicate balance between his seductive dreams and a lethal reality.
12. “The Black Door” (aired 11/19/61)
A young archeologist travels to the jungles of Central America to search for “the City of the Fire God.” Teaming up with a local guide, our intrepid hero follows the trail down to a temple in the center of an extinct volcano. What could possibly go wrong?
I tend to find later episodes of Suspense overblown and tacky, but this one proves an exception. The mysterious, exotic score and intense narration recall some of the show’s spookiest fare from the ’40s and ’50s.
13. “The Hitch-Hiker” (aired 9/2/1942)
Any list would be incomplete without this ominous classic. A lonely driver (Orson Welles) encounters a phantom hitchhiker who somehow seems to precede his car wherever it goes. Modern listeners aren’t in for any surprises, but this episode’s desolate, somber atmosphere (amplified by music from the great Bernard Herrmann) gets its hooks in you and doesn’t let go. Just don’t listen to it on your next solo road trip…
Disclaimer: I am not responsible for any nightmares you may experience after listening to these after dark. But, as Orson Welles says, “Personally, I’ve never met anybody who doesn’t like a good ghost story…”